The Light

The light that falls over a lovely passage in a book, and you feel something shift within you.

The light that catches the floating steam off a coffee cup as it mingles with the mist in the mountains, and on this wisp, you can hear the call of the highland birds between the sounds of cutlery at the breakfast table.

The light that entangles with the ridges of a smile, casting shadows on the creases of a face that you have fallen in love with.

The light that shines through a leaf as it stands stoic and silent in the summer heat, allowing it to pass through, making it transparent like muslin.

The light that falls on a baby’s sleeping face as the mother checks in on her, opening the door gently, slowly, so that a wedge of beam sneaks into the room and washes over her closed eyes.

The light that slants through the kitchen window and falls on the dented contours of pots and pans used for many years, their spaces fragrant with stories of many shared meals, conversations and silence.

The light that brushes against the silver sheen of a woman’s hair as she carries a basket of fresh vegetables from the market, and winds through the wrinkles on her face as she crosses the road, her hands full of all that sustains life.

The light that slips in through raindrops, and forms rainbows in your eyes.

The light that weaves in through the delicate fray of a well- worn cotton top, snuggling in between the air and comfort that breathes through.

 

That kind of lightness. That kind of Light.

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The Call of the Crow

The Call of the Crow

 

Common, they call me, a common crow,

I am chased from their windows for creating a row,

In their city, where everyone clamours to be heard

Above the din- each one merely, a part of the herd.

 

Cars honk, people rush, chasing success, going for the kill

I track them from the star apple tree, or a window sill,

Grabbing what they can, clamouring for attention

Jostling and juggling, their lives a constant friction.

 

Dazzled by the unusual- for to them, that has glamour and beauty

With binoculars and cameras, they run after migratory birds that fly through their city

While I, black and grey, with a croaky caw, am not worth a look,

They dismiss me with stones, a sharp shout, as if I am a crook.

 

I know, though, that I am intelligent and street smart,

I can even count, and am determined to finish anything I start,

So let them ignore me, I will still sing for myself,

And I have learnt how to get by without any help.

 

In my eyes, I am beautiful, my coat a black sheen

Making a pretty picture, a striking contrast amidst the green,

And I bet this city wouldn’t be the same, without me swooping high and low,

For, can you imagine Mumbai without a single crow?

 

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Home By The Sea

It’s a Sunday morning on Mumbai’s Juhu beach. Enthusiastic day- break joggers have gone home and the long stretch of sand is largely empty, save for a few hawkers and strays who are curling up on the warm grains, too languid to stir from their place, even as we walk around them.

We have come here for a marine walk. To get to know the rich sea life that inhabits the shores of this vast city; the original residents of the megapolis that, though was formed of seven islands, is still a large island flanked by the Arabian sea.

We are ensconced by an expansive biodiversity of marine life, and in intrinsic and essential ways, more than we know, and care to acknowledge, our lives, ecosystems and our very survival hinges on respecting these life forms that create an invisible synergy between our lives, quite like the delicate dance of the moon and tides.

Though the rambling curve of Juhu beach is divided into the sandy part that begins somewhere near the Ramada Plaza hotel, the muddy section that snakes alongside Juhu Tara road, and the rocky portion that forms the backdrop of a native fishing community on the outskirts of Khar, -this demarcation is fluid, seamlessly flowing into each other. Just as our walk is getting into the rhythm of the sand, our feet feeling its shifting quality, it starts getting heavier and we realise that the loose sand has given way to a denser, cloying variety that sticks to our shoes and soon we are wading into an inlet that leaves our footprints in the mud along the shore. Gradually small pebbles get under our feet, we feel their crunch and roundness beneath our shoes and soon we are up against the big rocks.

We notice all this because we are walking gingerly, for when we move with awareness and look beneath our feet at the immense variety of life forms that permeate the waters, we are mindful of where we place our step, of what we step on.

Glinting on the shore, against the shimmering sand is a spectrum of bivalve molluscs and gastropods, with shells in colours and patterns so mesmerising that they are miniature masterpieces under the sun. In fact, sand is formed as the waves break these shells over time, and pound them into the proverbial million pieces like a clear night sky scattered with stars.

So many shapes, structures, shades and symmetries. We flit from one to the other, holding a magnifying glass and admiring the way nature has created such complex rhythms, such intricate systems, such sheer diversity- all working in complete and cohesive harmony to produce a symphony in the sea. We hold each gently, on the palm, for we now experience its life, its contribution to the whole of creation, its innate strength to survive over thousands of years, and yet these life forms look so fragile, so vulnerable in their beauty.

The ethereal sunset shell, a bivalve, whose outer lilac casing is designed to form the slanting rays of the sun; the turban shell whose spiral turns are akin to the human headgear; the Olivia which is slender and conical with a slit towards one end, quite like a lady wearing a shimmering slit gown; the Ambonium that is a bright red and is also called a button shell and it is indeed as cute as a button; three types of Donax, pearl white and pretty; my favourite, the window pane oyster whose shell is translucent and gossamer, like a glass painting, stained with hues of blue and purple, used to decorate chandeliers and as we hold it up , its timeless colours sparkle in the sunshine; the Psomania, with its sheen of white flecked with pink; the blue barnacles, immortalised by Captain Haddock to Tintin as he thundered, “billions of blistering blue barnacles!” Yes, they sting!

The hermit crab borrows the discarded shell of other molluscs and moves around in them- the original recycler! We see colonies of hermit crabs all in a variety of shells scurrying across the sand bed and marvel at the way Nature has a way of valuing and reusing everything She designs. And how wonderful Her mechanisms of coexistence are. For instance, the Decorator Worm gathers discarded shells, sticks them together with its saliva and makes tunnels to house itself! And all that in a space of a couple of inches. We see the Kavdi, a common sea shell that we have all gathered as children, the inside edge having teeth like structures. This was used as currency hundreds of years ago.

We watch the pink sea anemone sway its tentacles like a bevy of dancers synchronising to a beat. And on the boulders, we find oysters embedded in the rocks, the bivalves opened out like a fan. Climbing the rocks, we dip into the waters and discover the first multicellular animals in the world – the sponges, in a burst of colours -orange, yellow, blue and sapphire green- which have a singular opening through which they take in whatever food the current brings in, and the outgoing current carries away any waste material that they expel.

We have not only travelled to the outer reaches of the beach, but also to the edge of time. Overhead, the Terns, on white wings fly across the silent sky.

And we know we can go forward only by taking care of our marine life, helping preserve what was gifted to us, honouring all life forms, respecting the balance through which Nature functions, and understanding that we are but a mere part of the big picture, a speck in the ocean of time.IMG_6509IMG_6511IMG_6513IMG_6530IMG_6551IMG_6553IMG_6568IMG_6608IMG_6620IMG_6647IMG_6677IMG_6681IMG_6703IMG_6741

Heritage Trees of Mumbai

Devoid of the weekday buzz, the traffic snarls and the bustle of people, the heart of old Bombay, all the way from Fort, Fountain and Museum, beats to another era.

With the streets emptied out, the splendour of this area stands out majestic and arresting, the sheer beauty and detailing of the colonial architecture juxtaposed against the stoic and silent trees that stand sentinel along the pavements for ages.

Who knew Bombay held such treasures – for we go about our business keeping our eye on the clock and rarely stop by, maybe at the corner of Horniman circle or the intersection of flora fountain or even across the street from Lions Gate, and lean against the Banyan tree, look up at the expressive canopy of the peepal tree or simply bask in the shade of the Jungli badaam tree, its fruit fallen freely at our feet and its red and yellow flowers so hopeful and light.

The Indian laburnum, whose pods taste like caramel and have a variety of birds flocking to indulge their sweet cravings. The star apple tree, whose leaves are a velvety copper on one side and a shiny green on the other. Or the resourceful Boaban tree, whose trunk bears the strange impression of an African face (no wonder it is an African native), and which stores water and can grow for 5000 years. Its white flowers bloom at night and are fertilised by bats. Or the rain tree, which looks like lilac green (if such a colour was invented!) and is so called because it houses cicadas which spew water. The rain tree has leaves that close at night. And the Mahua tree with its intoxicating properties that tribals dance to and the statuesque Mahogany planted by Dr Livingstone nearly 150 years ago! Such a rich, fascinating variety lining the walk in downtown Bombay!

At times when I look up at the sprawling canopy, and stand still beneath their shelter, I find trees invested with quiet character and dignity. They accommodate all our neglect, the way we take them for granted, and yet, are graceful in their forgiveness. We are their children. We go home to them.

There are stories in these trees. They have grown old with the city, a witness to its evolution, supporting it silently, their barks reassuringly old, their branches reaching the skies like a silent prayer for the city, sprouting flowers like wisdom. Many of them are not native to Indian soil, planted mostly by the British, but they have adapted with grace, for that is what life is. They know this in their very core, and this is how they support other life forms, from the birds that live off their fruits, to the butterflies that depend on their flowers; giving rise to an intricate dance of nature, that goes on, encircling us.

Yet, caught in our busy worlds, we are not able to resonate with it on a conscious level. For at a deeper plane, trees sustain us, in several invisible ways, making us a part of this dance, part of the city’s history, rooting us to the land.

As the seasons change, the trees are aglow with pink, and yellow and white and red blossoms. The Sunday Spring air stirs their leaves and the sunlight glints through them falling in patterns on the imposing buildings, casting definitive shadows that bring their history alive. If you centre yourself and listen, you can tune in to the synergy that flows like music through these spaces, where nature, heritage and life forms mingle and ultimately become one. Become the Bombay, or Mumbai that we love.

A Portrait of Grief

She stands in the huge living room, warmed by the slanting light of a winter morning sun. She looks like a shadow, as she moves across the room, and not only because of the black shawl that she has wrapped around her shoulders.

When I reach out to hug her, she stands tight and motionless. All her effort is spent in centring the black hole of sorrow that continually threatens to spill out of her being. Standing unmoved is the only way, perhaps, to contain it within, her body like a steel dam clamping around the gigantic vortex within.

We sit down. A strange silence descends on the room, like a deserted street after a holocaust as the world empties out all its colour. The only sound, ironically, is that of a ticking clock, muffled and relentless, counting out this time in slow motion.

She looks down, vacant eyed, a solitary black figure against the white sofa, a blank silence against the noise of life around her.

I am sorry, I say. It was a shock. The sentence hangs in the air, incomplete, irrelevant and unnecessary. For, what can you say that can even touch the skin of what she has gone through; mere words and feelings fall abysmally short in even reaching the base of the impenetrable tower of death.

What unimaginable burden of grief and guilt for a mother to carry when she loses her only son at the age of 19. Her entire life stretches like an endless tunnel, as she realises that she has to go on, when he cannot.

She occasionally looks up, but mostly her eyes are averted, as she speaks. She is far from ready to look life in the face. She would rather relive her son’s brief life, as images flit one after another, of his childhood, school days, the things he said to her, how he felt in her arms when he was an infant, his favourite food and how his eyes lit up when she gave it to him, his mischief, his bullying of his younger sister, the care with which she had brought him up, every day- all these images come rushing by and that is all she can see, all that she wants to see, all that she can’t help but see.

Before this tsunami wave of memory engulfs her, she composes herself, so that not a trickle of what’s happening within her reaches the shore of her eyes. Straightening, she drags herself back to this stark world, its light too bright. Will you have tea? She asks. Life must go on, she has been told. She has to stay strong for her daughter, she has to bridge the world where her son has gone, with the world she now has to inhabit, over and over again, with its duties, responsibilities, obligations and chores.

Why, she asks, looking up, her eyes filled with incoherence and something close to a smothered scream, did this happen to him? He did not eat or drink anything wrong or unhealthy. In fact, he took good care of himself.

The question floats around the room, ominous and large in its uncomfortable silence. There is no reassuring answer, no possible reply, and like a balloon without a string, hovers without any destination.

She fumbles for answers herself, for she wants to know, has to know. Her mind darts, clutching at reasons, for a sense of prediction at the core of this annihilation. Maybe it’s the stress of studies. Maybe we give them too much medication for the smallest of ailments. Maybe its destiny. Maybe. Maybe.

She sighs, her face shutting down again, defeated by her search for meaning, a cause, to what seems like massive, meaningless occurrence.

In a few days, she will need to sift and sort through his belongings. The sweater that had kept him warm, the t-shirt that had seen better days but which he still insisted on wearing, his shoes- the laces of which he always tied in a hurry and came undone the moment he stepped out of the door. His books with his name scribbled across the front page, his dreams to be a doctor left within their pages. Each of his possessions is alive with his presence, only he is absent.

How will she give him away, yet once again, part with what he had grown into, grown with her love and care? How will she give away so many years of love and laughter and living? How could she no longer be his mother? How could she dissolve the identity fused into her being for so long?

She talks about children, as young as 3 or 4 years afflicted with cancer that she has seen in this past year of being in and out of hospitals. They cannot even express their pain, she says. We talk about other cases, of children snatched away too early. Is it? she asks, strangely reassured after each such story. She wants to believe she is not alone, that there are others worse off than her, that somewhere she is not the only one who feels this bottomless void of confusion and loss, that she is not the only mother God chose to play a cruel joke on. She wants a resting place, some temporary relief for her grief in these shared stories.

Perhaps they should have tried alternative therapies earlier. Gone in for other options, opinions. They had put all their trust in modern medicine. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. All the coulds, woulds, shoulds rattle on the window of her mind like a storm raging on the panes all night through. It will be a long, very long night.

Take care, I say as I leave. Please keep in touch. She nods and half smiles. She comes to see me to the door. Assured and courteous. She stops by and lets her mother-in-law know I am leaving, gives instructions to the house help. She opens the door and lets me out. A visitor to her grief. And then the door shuts. Enclosing a vacuum too deep and heavy and big to fill. I imagine she lets her guard down behind the closed door, as much as I breathe into all the mixed feelings I find swirling inside. Even to think of oneself in her shoes is an act of selfishness.

Outside a generous light washes the lobby. A bright pink bougainvillea drops on the walls, its branches heavy with the blooms. Birds chirp on trees in the driveway. People come and go, through the gates, busy with another day.

And time ticks by, life goes on.

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